To get a sense of the value Hollywood now places on top-tier sports talent, do a quick compare-and-contrast exercise with Warner Bros.’ Space Jam franchise. Back in 1996, Michael Jordan convinced the studio to build him a full training facility on the set, a regulation court under an inflatable dome that allowed His Airness to stay in shape over the course of the production. When LeBron James last year began shooting the Space Jam sequel, he got a court, a production deal and $15.8 million in funding from Warner and Turner Sports for his multimedia startup, Uninterrupted.
In a bid to catalyze further sports-and-storytelling synergies, three executives from very different backgrounds have teamed up to launch game1, a new studio designed to pair athletes, teams and leagues with filmmakers, show runners and branded-content creators. Spearheaded by veteran sports marketing guru Greg Economou, Thunder Road Pictures founder Basil Iwanyk (The Town, John Wick, We Are Marshall) and former “SportsCenter” host Michael Smith, game1 looks to develop a wealth of narrative content, ranging from full-length theatricals and documentaries to podcasts.
In the space of just a few months, game1 has hammered out dozens of deals with sports A-listers such as Houston Rockets guard James Harden, former IndyCar and NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Houston athletes will be featured in a pair of docuseries—Harden’s project will focus on L.A.’s summer basketball scene, while the Watson show centers on his personal experience as the face of an NFL franchise—and Patrick will run point on a TV newsmagazine that examines gender issues in sports, entertainment and politics.
Another game1 project in the works is a reality series that tails European soccer great David Villa as he works to get the Queensboro FC expansion club up and running in the midst of a global pandemic. (Villa’s newly-adopted home ground of Queens was hit harder by the coronavirus than any other borough New York; as such, the club’s launch was pushed back from 2021 to 2022.)
All told, game1 currently has more than 100 projects in different stages of development, including a slate of feature films.
As game1 builds up its client roster, the partners look to empower athletes to find the most impactful projects through which to tell their own stories. These creative meetings of the mind are particularly valuable in a time when the appetite for sports content seems to have no upper register. (Of course, there is something to be said for expertise; after all, not everyone is LeBron James, a walking brand with an in-house media apparatus at his disposal.)
“Content is more important than ever, especially as it relates to the sports world,” says Iwanyk, who adds that game1’s ambition is nothing less than to be “the most prolific maker of sports movies in Hollywood.”
Economou and Iwanyk first joined forces a year ago, when they kicked off (co)laboratory with The Players’ Tribune co-founder Jaymee Messler. Shortly after the launch was announced, Messler decided to go in a different direction and bought the (co)laboratory name outright. (The separation was amicable on both sides.) Economou and Iwanyk then ginned up the new game1 brand and made then-Chief Content Officer Smith a full partner.
In addition to narrative fare, game1 is pursuing partnerships in the branded-content arena. “We recognize that brands are beginning to evolve in the way they play in the content space, transitioning from pure advertisers to becoming part of the fabric of that content, and in some instances, investors and IP owners of content as well,” Economou says. “We have already developed several brand partnerships that run that gamut.”